Incentives and Safety Programs

By far one of the hardest elements of running a successful business is, safety. From transportation, to production floors, to assembly lines, to just walking around an office, business owners expose themselves and their employees to some degree of risk at every level. Often, new programs or ideas for safety improvement are touted as a sort of silver bullet to eliminate risk to employees. While improvements are certainly made regularly, safety is not a zero-sum game, and the best we can do is minimize risk as much as possible to keep our workers safe and healthy. This is effectively done most often through a combination of training, safety protocols, personal protection equipment (PPE), and reward/incentive programs. The last item on that list, incentive programs, is a deceptive beast when it comes to safety; while rewarding employees for safety seems intuitive, implementation is tricky and can sometimes be problematic. To best avoid falling on the wrong side of this balancing act, let’s take a look at some different kinds of safety incentive structures and discuss their effectiveness.

Traditional Incentive and Safety Programs

One of the first types of safety incentive programs to come about, and one that is still used today, though not as widely, is the “X days/weeks/months/years” without an accident method. In other words, employees are rewarded when injuries and accidents don’t occur for a certain length of time. Along with the bragging rights of having a big number here, rewards might be free lunches for the entire staff every 100 days without incident, or something to that effect. Over time, workers are safer because they want to keep incentives coming their way and raise that number as high as it can go. Right? Well, kind of.

This type of program has been widely criticized and discredited in recent years, to the point that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, or OSHA, has spoken out against employers using this method. What’s the big deal? One of biggest problems is non-reporting, sometimes a high running tally of days in a row without an incident is more a result of incidents that were just never reported, not that didn’t actually occur. Think of it this way: Let’s say a team of workers is rewarded at 100 days without incident, and on day 94, Bob slices his finger open on a machine part. Bob wasn’t doing anything unsafe, exactly, but the machine should have a taller guard to prevent employee interaction with sharp parts. Bob knows that in less than a week his team gets rewarded, and decides not to report the incident because he doesn’t want to “ruin” it for everyone. Alternatively, maybe he thought about reporting it but was pressured or convinced by his coworkers that it really wasn’t a big deal and that he should just tough it out, at least until after they hit day 100.

Not only does this not help Bob in any way, but the bigger implication is that unsafe behaviors, environments, and working conditions continue to exist because a report was never filed; instead of being safer, the machine is left the same and the next worker to use it is put at risk of cutting themselves as well. Even worse, Bob may have gotten off lucky, and the next accident involving the same hazard might be more severe, even life-threatening.

One major problem with such a stance, and one that OSHA has themselves stated, that these types of systems can, in certain circumstances, amount to negative reinforcement; encouraging employees not to report incidents because of the possible repercussions. Of course, whistle blowing on unsafe practices is protected by law, and employers are not legally allowed to punish employees for reporting incidents. However, when the pressure to not report, and the threat of retribution if one does, comes from one’s co-workers, management may enjoy plausible deniability and nicely padded safety numbers at the same time. In the vast majority of cases, the intentions are not nearly as sinister as this, but even setting aside the risk for abuse, the method still encourages many of the wrong things and has proven to be fairly ineffective and in some cases even counter-productive, making your workplace less safe than it was before.

Alternative Incentives & Metrics

The idea that a reward could be offered to help encourage safe behavior and practices was a good one, just not perfected in its former state. For this reason, businesses and their safety managers started to look at what are called “leading indicators.” Leading indicators are behaviors and practices that lead to safe conditions in the future. For example, an employee properly wearing his or her PPE every time they’re doing an activity, lifting heavy objects with proper form and method, cleaning up a dusty or wet area immediately after use, etc. are all examples of possible leading indicators.

What this allows you to do is reinforce the actual behaviors that encourage safety, rather than observations of a lack of incidents (which, as we’ve discussed can be ineffective). This also gives employees an incentive to work together for each others’ benefit. For example, let’s say you decide to keep a tally of leading indicators, and once the count reaches 200, you buy your employees lunch for the day. This system is a vast improvement over a traditional incentive system for the reason that workers are going to encourage reporting, not discourage it, because it is to their benefit to be as safe as possible.

There are, however, some drawbacks to this method. One is that false positives, so-to-speak, can be reported; employees looking to pad the incentive count might waste time reporting things that aren’t actually great leading indicators. The other (more minor) problem is that there is no slipping back or resetting the counter in this method. In a traditional system, the “days without incident” counter is reset to zero when something happens. In a leading indicator system, nothing resets the counter to zero. This means that the only motivation to participate in the program is for a good enough reward, and for safety/self-preservation. You have control over what the reward incentives are, but if the want for self and co-worker safety isn’t enough for someone after that, you might not be looking at employee you really want around anyways.

You Can’t Survive On Incentives Alone

One of the biggest problems with incentive programs, no matter how you go about them, is that people depend on them too much. Incentive programs alone cannot save a faltering safety environment. You need to, first and foremost, consider the following areas before ever thinking about implementing incentives in your safety program.

Training: Training programs should be airtight. Training employees to know exactly what safe behaviors and leading indicators are is a step that needs to be taken long before expecting them to be able to report them in real time. Training should also be administered by professionals who know what they need to teach from front to back.

Mindset: Mental attitude is a huge part of safety culture in the workplace, meaning that employees need to be, either through traditional training or otherwise, mentally in favor of safe behavior.

Incentive programs can be effective, but they’re tricky, as this article is just a short testament to. If you think that your business could benefit from such a program, think long and hard about laying the proper infrastructure first, and then professionally and expertly implement your program; planning, creativity, and discipline are then the biggest factors in the post-implementation phase of any incentive program. Best of luck!

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